Recital Review

The EMF Steinway Piano Gala 2004: American Romantics

July 2, 2004 - Greensboro, NC:

The Eastern Music Festival's Piano Gala Concert, featuring members of the piano faculty in piano four hands and other repertory, has long been a favorite with audiences. It was the first festival event to be taken to area communities by means of run-out performances to Elon University and to High Point. A substantial and enthusiastic audience was on hand for the July 2 performance in Dana Auditorium on the lovely Guilford College Campus. The returning faculty pianists were High Point native James Giles, Yoshikazu Nagai, and Gideon Rubin. New this season was Daniel Shapiro, a student of Leon Fleischer, a top prize winner of the William Kapell International Competition and an experienced vocal accompanist and coach.

The concert opened and closed with two works of unusual interest by very individual composers. William Bolcom is familiar to Central Piedmont music lovers thanks to his concert appearances from Greenville and Wilmington to Greensboro. The NC Symphony co-commissioned and gave the NC premiere of his composition celebrating the Wright Brothers and manned flight. The influence of Darius Milhaud, his teacher, is clear in Recuerdos , composed for a duo-piano competition that took place in 1991 in Miami and that honored the memory of pianist Murray Dranoff. The three movements - "Choro," "Paseo," and "Valse Venezezolano" - are written in the style of Latin American dances of the turn of the 20th century and are dedicated to composers Ernesto Nazareth, Louis-Moreau Gottschalk, and Ramon Delgado Palicos, who had a seminal influence on Bolcom's musical evolution. Duo-pianists Nagai and Shapiro played with great rhythmic precision and sensitive care for color. If I had not heard some of Milhaud's Brazilian-inspired dances for piano, I would have thought the wonderfully light-textured "Choro," with its Brazilian samba, was Chopin, passed through a Latin prism. "Paseo" is a slow but rhythmically vital dance. "Valse Venezolano" begins nostalgically and has a flashy ending. This ought to become a standard piece in the duo-piano repertory.

The concert's concluding work, Ingolf Dahl's Quodlibet on American Folk Tunes ("The Fancy Blue Devil's Breakdown"), is a delightful musical puzzle for the listener that is sheer fun to see and to hear performed. According to Steven Ledbetter's program notes, "four of the six melodies Dahl uses and combines contrapuntally are square dances - 'Boston Fantasy,' 'Old Fiddler's Breakdown,' (also known as 'Arkansas Traveler') and 'Old Zip Coon' (also known as 'Turkey in the Straw'). To these are added two slow melodies, 'Deep Blue Sea' and 'California Joe.'" All four pianists joined on the two Steinways to weave the complicated strands of this musical "Rubik's Cube" with great aplomb.

John Musto's arrangement of the familiar "Symphonic Dances" from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story was given an unsentimental but moving interpretation by Giles and Rubin. Their simple and elegant rendering of the song tunes tugged at the heart.

The challenging feature of Ned Rorem's Six Variations for Two Pianos (1995) is that there is no stated theme! According to Ledbetter's notes, "it consists simply of variations, each of which has a different approach to related, complimentary or similar material." The titles - "Wistful," "Brooding," "Spiky," "Waltz," "Veiled," and "Scherzo" - perfectly captured the mood of each seamlessly played variation. Shapiro and Giles brought these off with great élan. I look forward to hearing these delightful vignettes again.

Rubin and Nagai brought out all the passion and pathos to be found in Percy Grainger's "Fantasy on Gershwin's Porgy and Bess," which encompasses the opera's best-known songs.

Friends had reported disappointment that one of the gala's traditions, an encore of Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever," was absent at the June 29 Elon outing. With more or less rhythmic applause, the Dana audience reveled in all four pianists' rousing performance of the favorite chestnut. Gideon half rose from his bench to glory in his brazen playing of the famous "piccolo" part, mimicking the tradition of having that section of the band to stand as they play.